The Best Muscle Building Exercise…If You Had to Pick One

deadlift

What if there can be only one?

What if you could only pick one exercise, one to build the most muscle mass….one to stimulate the most hormonal responses….one to just master and progress with as the gains keep coming. So what would it be? The squat? Bench press? Tricep kickbacks? (I kid….I kid)

So let’s first define what it does take to increase muscle. How about exercises that do the following:

  • Use the major prime movers (compound lifts for the big muscles)
  • Stimulating those muscles with enough resistance (keeping reps lower and weights higher)
  • Increasing the time under tension of work (greater ROM/slower reps)
  • Maximum signaling of muscle building hormones (Testosterone, GH, IGF-1) and limiting the muscle breakdown ones (Cortisol)
  • Progression over time with workout (add weight/reps/volume)
  • Rest, nutrients and recovery (especially sleep)

So taking all those into account, we are looking for an exercise that uses the most (and biggest muscle), able to lift heavy, bigger ROM (more time under tension) and generates a positive muscle building hormonal response….sounds like that would be a winner!

The best exercise is….

I am going to send this one over the the strength and conditioning expert Charles Poloquin as he talked about his #1 exercise in an interview a couple years back

The snatch-grip deadlift, specifically a snatch deadlift on a four inch platform. The idea here is to get a large range of motion by standing on the platform and using the wide grip.

If you told me you were going to jail and only had a barbell and didn’t want to get raped in the showers and could only do one exercise to put mass and strength on, then I’d tell you to do the snatch deadlift on a platform.

This exercise alone makes people gain weight like crazy. Any time I have someone who needs to gain weight fast and doesn’t have a whole lot of time, I have them do snatch deadlifts. And with the snatch grip deadlift, straps are okay because you’ll be doing reps above three, but don’t use them until you get to your working weight.

If you think about it, this is the opposite of the sumo deadlift, which shortens the range of motion. Likewise, some powerlifters will lift in ballet shoes to shorten the ROM. What we want to do here is lengthen it. The snatch grip and platform will take care of that.

interview from tnation.com

snatchgrip

How to perform: In the starting position, feet are shoulder width apart. Grip is wider than usual like done with a snatch lift, except that you can use standard or over-under hook style (above). Knees, chest and shoulders over bar and retracted shoulder blades. Lower back is always kept arched. Eyes forward (not down). Now with the upper body tight, start the lift with your legs/back and pull upward. You can go as fast as you like on the way up (explode depending on weight) and then use a slow and controlled movement on the way down to increase the time under tension. Repeat with 3-5 sets of 4-8 reps for optimal size gains (those numbers and sets can also be changed up of course depending on the weight used).

Make it harder: do while standing (just your feet, not the weights) on a 2-4″ elevated platform (talk about an evil exercise that will humble you).

Weights: Start light and progress up till you know your “working” weight for your sets. Charles mentions about using straps, and I suggest you avoid using it until you find your grip failing and want to continue with more sets (as a weak grip will not help to maximally stimulate all your other muscles)

Other Resources: For more info on how to perform deadlift properly check out these resources with a tutorial over at strong lifts on how to perform the deadlift and these videos by Mark Rippetoe (author of Starting Strength)

More bang for your effort

The great thing about the snatch grip deadlift is how it incorporates so many muscles/movements all in one exercise. Look at the benefits:

  • Use a small platform and feel all those muscles work even harder!

    Use a small platform and feel all those muscles work even harder!

    Just as deep if not deeper than a squat (especially for those that don’t even get deep enough or have weaker hamstrings)

  • Excellent stimulator of posterior chain (power and speed)
  • Uses all the back muscles (erectors, lower, lats, traps)
  • Increases grip strength
  • Provides more ROM and time under tension (growth) than a standard squat or deadlift (especially if you get on a small platform as seen to the right)
  • Can also do explosive versions (a full snatch movement – weight lifted overhead)
  • Help attack those weaknesses and sticking points (which are usually in the low starting position) for other lifts, while also preventing muscle imbalances (especially the quad:ham ratio that could injure many)

All in all this exercise brings most everything to the table (except maybe more chest/shoulder/pressing strength). While most people may stick to a squat (or their limited movement version) or a less than optimal deadlift form….getting nice and low with the snatch grip DL will ensure full ROM, working/blasting through sticking points (that will carry to other movements) and the most “bang for your buck” in a full body movement.

Reminder that hormones DO matter

Here’s an additional thing to remember in your muscle building quest, about how important your hormones are. If you think it’s just about isolating muscles and drinking lots of protein shakes, you have been sadly mislead by mainstream media (and all the supplement companies). Hormones play a vital role in the building (and maintaining) of muscle.

Here’s a great example in a study in which groups of men ages 19-40 years old were given either 600mg testosterone or a placebo each week, and then those groups were also divided up into ones that did no exercise and those that trained 3x a week.  The results may surprise you:

testosteronemuscle

The men treated with testosterone but no exercise had an increase of 3.2 kg in fat-free mass, and those in the placebo-plus-exercise group had an increase of 1.9 kg.

from: The Effects of Supraphysiologic Doses of Testosterone on Muscle Size and Strength in Normal Men; Shalender Bhasin, M.D., Thomas W. Storer, Ph.D.

The group that was sedentary and had testosterone had almost DOUBLE the lean mass gain than the placebo group that worked out! So still think it’s all about working out or are hormones a bit more important now?

Take home point….the snatch grip DL is going to be a great natural stimulator of testosterone, unlike those people on the machines isolating muscles all the time.

Burn Fat as Well!

If your goal is more weight loss than bulk, this exercise is also a great addition to ramp up those fat burning hormones. Yes women….don’t worry about bulking up and add this exercise into your workouts as well. Get the reps a little higher (8-10), keep the volume high (add a superset with another exercise), go explosive, slow and controlled on the way down, and enjoy that full body lactic burn that is increasing your GH output with every lift! (and we all know GH is a vital hormone in signaling the release of fat from storage).

Now go try it…and enjoy the pain, I mean results!

So there you have it….the one exercise I (and a little known guy named Charles Poloquin) recommend you add in to your workout programming. Whether you do it more often with varied reps and speed, or work it into an EDT based programming style…it’s all your choice. Of course there are other exercises you can add in after to hit the areas not covered or add in secondary exercises for muscles already used….but this is a true muscle builder.

When it comes to building muscle….know that there is so much more at play as well (hormones), so make sure your lifestyle (nutrition, stress, sleep) supports muscle building and doesn’t take away from your efforts. (If you want more details into all the hormones at play again, I suggest re-reading the muscle building 101 article here.)

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